The White House at night.

John Mearsheimer on International Relations, Great Power Politics and the Age of Trump

December 15, 2018
Michael Lind

This article originally appeared in The National Interest with the subheading: "John J. Mearsheimer’s 'The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities' argues how the United States’ pursuit of a 'liberal hegemony' has been a failure with sizeable costs."​​

WHEN THE Cold War ended a quarter century ago, many realists expected the United States to retrench and demobilize. Instead, while drawing down some of its military forces, the country did the opposite. The United States waged war to expel Iraq from Kuwait, intervened in the Yugoslav civil war and promoted the expansion of NATO to include Eastern Europe and—many hoped, until Russia violently intervened—Georgia and Ukraine. Following the Al Qaeda attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States not only went to war against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, but also engaged in “wars of choice” to topple Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya and Bashar al-Assad in Syria, while adding U.S. participation in Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. The United States is now engaged in more simultaneous small wars on more fronts than at any point in its history.

In The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities , political scientist John Mearsheimer argues that the disappearance of the constraints imposed by Cold War bipolarity vouchsafed the United States the luxury of trying to reshape the world to conform to America’s domestic political creed of liberalism. Mearsheimer, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago, has written extensively on international relations from a realist perspective, including The Tragedy of Great Power Politics . Now he offers his most sweeping analysis of America’s purpose. Any argument about national and world politics is necessarily schematic. But a catechistic concision which might be a fault in others is a virtue in the case of Mearsheimer, whose prose is as perspicuous as his analysis. Accessible and yet rigorous, The Great Delusion deserves to be read by policymakers, scholars and the public alike.

The gravamen of his argument focuses on the exceptional circumstances that emerged after 1989, when America was not simply primus inter pares but emerged as the sole superpower. According to Mearsheimer,

occasionally a liberal democracy encounters such a favorable balance of power that it is able to embrace liberal hegemony. That situation is most likely to arise in a unipolar world, where the single great power does not have to worry about being attacked by another great power since there is none. Then the liberal sole pole will almost always abandon realism and adopt a liberal foreign policy. Liberal states have a crusader mentality hardwired into them that is hard to maintain.

This has led the United States (the only liberal superpower in history, or one of two, if nineteenth century Britain is counted) to adopt a strategy of liberal hegemony, “in which a state aims to turn as many countries as possible into liberal democracies like itself while also promoting an open international economy and building international institutions.” Mearsheimer writes:

With the end of the Cold War in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the United States emerged as by far the most powerful country on the planet. Unsurprisingly, the Clinton administration embraced liberal hegemony from the start, and the policy remained firmly intact through the Bush and Obama administrations.

Mearsheimer predicts that “liberal hegemony will not achieve its goals, and its failure will inevitably come with huge costs.” The chief barrier to the realization of the dream of a global society of liberal democracies is nationalism, “a particularist ideology from top to bottom.” Consequently, “nationalism and realism almost always trump liberalism.” In recognition of this fact, Mearsheimer argues, the United States should abandon its post-Cold War grand strategy of liberal hegemony in favor of a less interventionist strategy of “restraint.”

Mearsheimer has little trouble demolishing three reinforcing academic theories of international relations invoked after 1989 to justify America’s post-Cold War grand strategy of liberal hegemony: democratic peace theory, economic independence theory and liberal institutionalism. For Mearsheimer, these are rationalizations for a policy whose actual inspiration is to be sought in America’s centuries-old political culture of liberalism.

Much of the book is devoted to a history of liberal political and social thought in the Western world as a whole. Mearsheimer assigns—some might say shoehorns—a number of thinkers into two categories: expansive “progressive liberalism” and “modus vivendi liberalism,” a term he borrows from the philosopher John Gray, who may be surprised to find himself in the same bunkroom in the liberal camp as Friedrich Hayek, Adam Smith and John Locke. Mearsheimer’s emphasis on big-name authors from academic curricula could be criticized for leading him to neglect non-academic traditions like Social Gospel Protestantism, which arguably has had more influence on the attitudes of American liberal Wilsonians.

But these are quibbles. The case against liberal hegemony as a grand strategy for the United States that Mearsheimer offers is compelling. Alas, Mearsheimer’s proposed alternative of “restraint” is unlikely to be adopted for two reasons. The first is the division of realists themselves among rival camps, whose adherents would not be able to agree on a single realist alternative to liberal hegemony. The second is the increasing fusion of geopolitics with geo-economics in areas like trade, immigration and innovation policy, a subject about which American academic realists of all denominations have had little to say.

Mearsheimer defends the school known as “offensive realism” against its sibling rival, “defensive realism.” Offensive realism owes its name, not to the fact that people find it offensive (though liberals, libertarians, Marxists and others do) but to the assertion that states, given the opportunity, are likely to try to maximize their relative power, out of fear that others will do the same, and are justified in doing so. According to Mearsheimer:

The structure of the international system often forces great powers to engage in intense security competition and sometimes initiate wars. International politics is a nasty and brutish business, and not just because misguided liberal ideas or other malevolent domestic forces influence states’ foreign policies. Great powers occasionally start wars for sound realist reasons.

Appropriately, Mearsheimer’s earlier summary of offensive realism is entitled The Tragedy of Great Power Politics . This pessimistic vision of world politics as a Hobbesian bellum omnium contra omnes is rejected by many defensive realists. Mearsheimer, for example, alludes to an article by Charles Glaser entitled “Realists as Optimists.” He quotes Sebastian Rosato and John Schuessler defining defensive realism as a “recipe for security without war” and Marc Trachtenberg stating that “power is not unstable.”

The two academic schools of realism differ when it comes to the question of whether a state, given the opportunity, should pursue hegemony, defined as unbalanced or preponderant power in the interstate system. The offensive realist answer is: yes, if you can get away with it. In spite of his critique of liberal hegemony, Mearsheimer is not necessarily against American hegemony or primacy as such. He notes that the rise of China raises the possibility that the United States “would have to compete with a potential peer competitor, a situation no great power wants to face. It would be better to retain the unipolar world, even though it would tempt American policymakers to stick with liberal hegemony.” When it comes to shares of world power, offensive realists agree with Mae West: “Too much of a good thing can be wonderful.” By contrast, defensive realists reject this reasoning, on the premise that any over-mighty power will inevitably be cut down to size by a counter-balancing coalition of other great powers. As evidence, they point to the coalitions that thwarted the bids for European hegemony of Charles V, Napoleon, the Kaiser, Hitler and the Soviet Union.

BUT DOES history really show that attempts to amass disproportionate power are doomed in advance? The rise of the United States would appear to refute this view. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the British and French did not intervene militarily to prevent the United States from expanding across the continent by defeating Mexico in 1846–48, thwarting Southern secession during the American Civil War and then establishing its own sphere of influence in North America. Following the Cold War, China and post-Soviet Russia sought to boost their power at the expense of the United States, but America’s European and East Asian allies did not band together to balance American power.

When one looks at world history as a whole, rather than focusing narrowly on Europe between 1648 and 1989, the argument that anti-hegemonic balancing is a more or less automatic feature of systems of multiple states collapses. As the British scholar Martin Wight observed, state systems are the exception in history and empires the norm. The Warring States system of ancient China gave way to the Chinese empire. The Hellenistic state was incorporated in Alexander’s Macedonian empire and then, after a period of fragmentation among Hellenistic kingdoms, into the Roman empire—part of which, in the form of the Ottoman empire, lasted until World War I. Arguably the survival of multiple independent states in a competitive state system in Europe was a fluke, owed to the intervention of flanking powers which were themselves not balanced by strong powers—Russia, Britain and later the United States—as the German scholar Ludwig Dehio argued in The Precarious Balance . In other regions, successive rounds knocked out competitors until the last opponent of the power that unified the area was defeated. To the Mae West theory of offensive realism, we might add the Agatha Christie theory of the high mortality rate of competitive state systems: And Then There Were None.

If defensive realists are mistaken to assume that “balancing” potential hostile hegemons is the normal behavior of most states, rather than “bandwagoning” with the threatening power to appease it or “buck-passing” (hoping other powers will do the hard work of thwarting the bully), then the case that the United States can significantly scale down its military budget and minimize its alliances without any major loss in security may seem risky, even to those not engaged in “threat inflation” on behalf of Pentagon and other foreign policy bureaucracies.

To offensive realists and defensive realists, “restraint” means different things. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology scholar Barry Posen has made the most impressively detailed contemporary case for defensive realism in Restraint: A New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy . Like Mearsheimer, Posen rejects liberal hegemony. But Posen goes beyond Mearsheimer to reject hegemony in any form as a legitimate goal of U.S. grand strategy.

Earlier this year in an essay in Foreign Affairs , Posen wrote:

Breaking with his predecessors, Trump has taken much of the “liberal” out of “liberal hegemony.” He still seeks to retain the United States’ superior economic and military capability and role as security arbiter for most regions of the world, but he has chosen to forgo the export of democracy and abstain from many multilateral trade agreements. In other words, Trump has ushered in an entirely new U.S. grand strategy: illiberal hegemony.

Defensive realist proponents of a scaled-down foreign policy of “offshore balancing” want a grand strategy other than U.S. hegemony in any form, liberal or illiberal. In 2016, Mearsheimer himself co-authored an essay in favor of offshore balancing with another leading realist thinker, Stephen Walt in Foreign Affairs . But the logic of Mearsheimer’s offensive realist approach might lead one to conclude that some version of what Samuel Huntington in a 1993 essay in International Security called “international primacy” is preferable not only to liberal hegemony, which risks doing too much, but also to offshore balancing, which risks doing too little, too late in response to the rise of a regional or global hegemon outside of North America. Indeed, in their essay Mearsheimer and Walt argue that their version of offshore balancing would preserve American primacy.

This is Mearsheimer’s own conclusion in The Great Delusion :

Moreover, realism dictates that the United States should seek to remain the most powerful state on the planet. It should maintain hegemony in the Western Hemisphere and make sure that no other great power dominates its region of the world, thus becoming a peer competitor. Still, a foreign policy based on realism is likely to be less warlike than one based on liberalism.

On examination, then, the proposed American strategic alternatives of “restraint” or “offshore balancing” are defined in varying ways by different realists. Proving that the logic of structural realism extends to academic international relations departments, the success of American realist thinkers in overthrowing the dominant liberal hegemonic consensus would likely be followed by conflict among the former allies.

In addition to internal disagreements, a factor that is likely to limit the influence on American foreign policy of a “restraint” school is the focus of most academic realists on traditional military threats to the neglect of trade, economic development and industrial policy. To be fair, neorealists do pay attention to industrial capability as one of a number of attributes that would qualify a great power as a “pole” in a system. But with some exceptions, including the late Robert Gilpin, American international relations (IR) thinkers have not had much to say about industrial development.

That is surprising, given the obsession of practitioners of realpolitik throughout history with improving the economic capacities of their city-states, empires or nation-states. From Alexander Hamilton through Henry Clay to Abraham Lincoln and William McKinley, tariff-based import substitution and national infrastructure development along with foreign policy were united in a plan to turn the United States into a major power, equal or superior to industrial Britain. Protectionist economic nationalism was also central to the realist strategies of Otto von Bismarck and the Meiji reformers. Far from being based on free trade and labor mobility, the world economy in the period studied most by academic neorealists—from the seventeenth century to 1945—was the heyday of mercantilism and colonialism, in which trade wars and military wars were treated as legitimate and complementary tools of strategy. If you list famous Western realists—Hamilton, Benjamin Disraeli, Bismarck, Charles de Gaulle—you will not find a free trader among them.

LIBERAL SCHOLARS tend to ignore this history, except as a chronicle of sins and errors to be deplored. The entire liberal project, as Mearsheimer notes, has been based on a vision of atomistic individuals interacting freely in a society which, in theory, should encompass the entire human race in the form of a free global market as well as supra-national institutions in other realms. The utopian goal of liberalism—a post-national, integrated global economy—has been shared with liberals by Marxist socialists, who, however, add the fantasy of international working-class solidarity against “bourgeois” nationalism. Rejected by liberals and socialists alike, the defense of economic nationalism and state-sponsored industrial capitalism has been left to realists—with the striking exception of IR departments in U.S. universities.

Why? The answer, I think, must be sought in the evolution of the U.S. research university after World War II. At that time in economics departments, neoclassical economics—a simplified, highly mathematical version of nineteenth century economic liberalism—marginalized rival traditions, including the more pragmatic tradition of historical or institutional economics identified with various kinds of economic nationalism and developmentalism.

At the same time, in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, American neorealism as a discipline emerged as a reaction against prewar international relations schools, which had been dedicated to idealistic schemes for world leagues, world courts and the like. Influenced by “classical realists,” many of whom were continental European refugees like Hans Morgenthau and Henry Kissinger, American neorealists in IR departments sought to develop rigorous and systematic theories of realism which met the standards of positivist American social science, unlike the belletristic and aphoristic wisdom literature penned by the classical realist Herr Professors.

So it was that academic neoclassical economics and academic neorealism divided the world among them. Neoclassical economics ignored war and diplomacy and neorealists ignored trade, immigration, finance and state-sponsored industrialization, subjects left to the IR discipline of international political economy, which, however, approached them with a liberal rather than nationalist bias. Academic economics was based on stylized thought experiments involving generic firms or individuals; in the next seminar room, much IR theory was devoted to similar abstract thought experiments about “polarity.” Drawn toward the idea of explaining society in terms of the action of social forces or structures on individuals, neoclassical economists and defensive realists in different ways fetishized equilibrium—defined as the clearing of prices in economics and as more or less automatic power-balancing in world politics. Push an element of the system, and it will wobble until balance is restored.Within the post-1945 American university system, in which the prestige of a discipline increases the more it resembles physics, trying to turn messy world politics into a parsimonious social science may have been a good career move. But academic neorealists, in their focus on states as coherent, rational actors, have been woefully blind to the centrality of integrated transnational empires and blocs in world politics.

In an essay in this magazine entitled “Blocpolitik,” this author has made the case that it is impossible to understand contemporary relations among, say, the United States, Germany and Japan on the assumption, shared by classical realists and neorealists alike, that they can be treated as similar independent, “full-spectrum” states. Instead, Germany and Japan continue to be both semi-sovereign states, dependent on U.S. military protection and economically specialized in manufacturing in an American-led bloc. The European Union, with its Franco–German core, is itself a lesser hierarchical bloc within the larger hierarchical bloc led by Washington. As the hegemon of the bloc, the United States specializes in unique services to its dependents, including not only unreciprocated military protection, but also the provision of a common currency and access to the American market to the exports of other bloc members, often to the detriment of America’s own manufacturers. The fact that the American Cold War alliance system did not dissolve after the Cold War can be explained by the thesis that, by 1989, it had ceased to be a traditional military alliance and had become a deeply-integrated military-industrial bloc—a quasi-federation bound together by supply chains and administered, in the United States and its dependencies, by officials who could not imagine their nations existing outside of the Pax Americana.

There is no evidence that Donald Trump wishes to disintegrate the highly-integrated American bloc he inherited from his predecessors. Instead, his goal appears to be to force American military dependencies to contribute somewhat more to bloc defense, while somewhat rebalancing the distribution of manufacturing within the bloc in favor of American producers—two objectives, it should be noted, that he shares with earlier presidents. In the Trumpist version of realism, it seems that this rebalanced American bloc incorporating the industrial triad of North America, Europe and East Asia—not the United States alone—will respond to China’s challenge on all fronts, economic as well as military.

Blocism can be viewed as a successor to old-fashioned imperialism, and is inspired by the same zero-sum mercantilist logic. Military power depends on having advanced civilian industries. The most important of these for national power are manufacturing industries characterized by increasing returns to scale—that is, the larger the captive home or colonial market, the larger the production runs and the more efficient the industries. Hype about rapid prototyping and “Star Trek replicators” to the contrary, technology is unlikely to eliminate economies of scale in production in the foreseeable future. The importance of scale is reflected in the fact that a disproportionate number of successful transnational corporations have nearly half of their sales in the home markets of the three most populous capitalist countries—the United States, Japan and Germany. The home market effect helps to explain why Boeing and Airbus are the dominant players in global jetliner construction, and why search engines and social media platforms are dominated by American companies like Google, Amazon and Facebook.

The benefits of scale for modern industrial production undermine the argument—shared by many offensive realists and defensive realists alike—that the United States should focus only on near-term military threats from already-developed industrial countries and forego competing with rivals for influence in undeveloped areas. Echoing most realists, Mearsheimer writes:

This means the United States should not fight wars in Africa, Central Asia, or areas of the Middle East that lie outside the Persian Gulf. During the Cold War, for example, realists maintained that American policymakers should avoid wars in the “Third World” or “Developing World” because it was populated with minor powers that were of little strategic significance.

BUT SEVENTEENTH- and eighteenth-century mercantilists, nineteenth and twentieth century colonialists and American and Soviet strategists during the Cold War often sought to incorporate poor populations and territories into their blocs while denying access to them to their rivals. They did so, not on the basis of immediate contributions of these areas, if any, to the wealth and power of the metropole, but rather with an eye to their future potential as captive markets for national manufactured exports, sources of raw material and—in some cases—sources of civilian or military labor. Formal and informal colonialism has often been immoral but not irrational. It is much easier for a great power to expand its relative power by incorporating foreign nations into its alliance system and its extended home market than it is to boost its power by purely internal national population or productivity growth.

Like defensive realists, anti-imperialists in the past have often argued that the costs of empire outweigh the benefits. But that depends on the time frame. The British, French and other European colonial powers who extended their control over much of Africa, Asia and the Middle East in the late nineteenth century and between the world wars assumed that their empires would exist for generations. They were willing to pay initial costs as down payments on future contributions to the military and economic might of their empires. They did not foresee that the two world wars would cripple them, nor that they would be eclipsed by the United States and Soviet Union, which for reasons of liberal and socialist ideology, respectively, sought to phase out European colonialism.

Nor does popular nationalism inevitably doom empires and their modern successors, transnational blocs. On the contrary, multi-ethnic regional empires have been the norm in world history. National independence movements tend to succeed only when the imperial power is weakened by war or when its rival intervenes on behalf of the rebels. The United States exists because France intervened against Britain during the American war of independence. The Confederate States of America do not exist because Britain refused to intervene in the American Civil War.

The empires of the defeated powers in World War I were liquidated by the victors, while the empires of the victors remained intact. Decolonization after World War II was accelerated by the Cold War and the weakened condition of the metropoles; there is no reason to believe it would have happened as rapidly absent those factors, if it had happened at all. The United States was driven out of Indochina, not by Vietnamese nationalism alone (there were anti-communist as well as communist nationalists), but by the constant resupply of North Vietnam and its southern allies by the Soviet Union and China, and Washington’s fear of provoking direct Chinese entry, as in the Korean War. In Malaysia and the Philippines, communist insurgencies lacking external sanctuaries and great power sponsors were defeated, as they were throughout Latin America, with the sole exceptions of Cuba and, for a time, Nicaragua. Nationalist rebellions in the Soviet Union succeeded only after Gorbachev’s liberalizing reforms weakened the center; Moscow and its satraps had been quite capable of crushing nationalists in East Germany in 1953, in Hungary in 1956 and in Czechoslovakia in 1968.

Mearsheimer cites the work of Peter Liberman, who breaks with the consensus of American realists by providing a qualified “yes” to the question posed by the title of his book Does Conquest Pay? But most of Mearsheimer’s limited discussion of economics in The Great Delusion is a critique of the liberal theory that economic interdependence promotes great power peace, as opposed to questions such as whether it makes sense or not for China and the United States to compete to build African infrastructure, in the hopes of incorporating growing African workforces and consumers in the future into their own rival geo-economic blocs. To say, as too many academic neorealists do, that Africa presently contains no countries capable of militarily threatening the U.S. misses the point of the competition.What is needed in American foreign policy is an alliance of realism with economic nationalism. This should follow from the replacement of liberal hegemony with national primacy as the basis of U.S. grand strategy. The hegemon would not be the United States as an isolated nation-state, but a hegemonic bloc led by the U.S. and maintaining most of its present allies, with a certain amount of rebalancing within the bloc.

The American bloc can grow incrementally by the accession of new countries, but the neoconservative and neoliberal attempt to incorporate the entire planet into a single market and a single “rule-based order” policed by the U.S. military through a combination of wars of regime chance and “shock therapy” liberal economic globalization has been a catastrophe. In the future, the American bloc, based chiefly on North America and, if possible, Europe, may have to coexist with a Chinese bloc and perhaps an Indian bloc, along with a minor Moscow-centered Eurasian bloc, in the absence of Russian-American entente. On the global level, the United States and its allies should pursue a “concert-balance” strategy, attempting to maintain harmonious relations among regional great power blocs, while ensuring that, in the event of inter-bloc conflict, Uncle Sam is chair of the board of the great-power coalition with the greatest concentrations of population and resources and industry, as it was during the three world conflicts of the twentieth century. This is a strategy based on a preponderance of unbalanced power for Washington and its allies and dependencies, as an alternative to three other grand strategies: liberal hegemony, a minimal defensive realist strategy in which the United States is an “offshore balancer” intervening rarely as a deus ex machina in Eurasian conflicts and—by far the worst option—a neo-isolationist strategy that might permit the United States to be the friendless object of balancing coalitions.

The rejection of liberal hegemony in favor of national primacy in the realm of security strategy would be accompanied, in the economic realm, by the rejection of the liberal ideal of a rule-governed global free market in favor of strategic trade, investment and immigration policies. The United States would not, and should not, retreat into autarkic protectionism; on the contrary, it should try to be part of the largest and most productive economic bloc in the world. But the United States should minimize its financial and industrial interactions with military rivals and potential rivals by means of embargoes, sanctions or managed trade. And while taking the economic interests of other bloc members into account, it should not allow economic interdependence even with allies to undermine the industrial capacity on which U.S. military power depends. That includes maintaining the capacity for quick surges in militarily-relevant industrial production on U.S. soil, not leadership in technological innovation alone.

Heretical as this seems to modern liberal hegemonists, it is an approach that would have been familiar to Alexander Hamilton and the two Roosevelts. Needless to say, any legitimate American nationalism would be liberal, constitutional and democratic at home, even though the United States abandoned misguided crusades to topple non-threatening undemocratic regimes abroad by force or subversion.

Mearsheimer might not favor such a version of a grand strategy of national primacy. Among other things, the extensive state intervention in the economy required for it to succeed would make it more like Mearsheimer’s “progressive liberalism” than the small-government classical liberalism which he calls “modus vivendi liberalism” and seems to prefer. But a case can be made that the strategy this author has outlined is compatible with Mearsheimer’s offensive realist view of world politics.

Because of its emphasis on acquiring and keeping unbalanced, preponderant power, however, such a synthesis of realism and nationalism would probably be rejected by the kind of defensive realists who reject Trump’s strategy as “illiberal hegemony.” Defensive realists oppose liberal hegemony, but few, if any, question the anti-nationalist free market economics at the core of the liberal tradition. This makes possible alliances among defensive realists and libertarians, who for their part tend to oppose large militaries and foreign intervention on the basis of anti-statism and radical individualism rather than realpolitik. Unfortunately for those who support a realist-libertarian alliance, the number of Americans who favor a combination of dramatically lower defense spending, more offshoring of industry and low-wage immigration is negligible, equivalent to supporters of the Libertarian Party, which gets no more than a few percent of the vote at most in elections.

A prudent attempt to preserve or expand an American-led bloc with preponderant wealth and power is likely to be repudiated by many defensive realists and their libertarian allies. But those who favor replacing liberal hegemony with national primacy as the guiding principle of U.S. foreign policy can find inspiration as well as insight in The Great Delusion .


Michael Lind

Michael Lind is a visiting professor at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas and author of "The American Way of Strategy."

Official White House photo by Keegan Barber shared in the public domain.